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Military Strike Against Iraq On Table U.S. Advisers’ Patience Thin Over Continued Resistance To Full U.N. Inspections

President Clinton’s top foreign-policy advisers met Saturday to weigh military and political strategies against Iraq, among them a sustained attack on biological and chemical weapons sites that Saddam Hussein has hidden from U.N. inspectors, White House officials said.

“There’ll be one final round of diplomacy, and then an ultimatum, and then we act,” a National Security Council official said.

White House officials said a countdown to a military strike could begin as soon as Ramadan - the Muslim holy month of fasting - ends Friday.

The White House meeting came as a consensus emerged in the president’s national security staff that Iraq would never comply with the U.N. inspectors, and that smart bombs and cruise missiles may be needed to destroy Saddam’s hidden potential to build crude weapons of mass destruction.

The administration plans to devote the coming week to convincing skeptical U.S. allies and members of Congress that military action is the only way to stop Iraq from building a biological and chemical arsenal.

“We have never put the question directly: ‘We’re going in. Are you with us or not?”’ the National Security Council official said.

So far, only Britain is clearly supporting a hard line. Seven years after it came together to drive the Iraqi army out of Kuwait, the international coalition that fought the Persian Gulf war under the U.N. banner has splintered.

Two U.S. battle groups in the gulf - including warships, fighter jets, hundreds of cruise missiles and precision-guided bombs - will soon be joined by a British battle group. Together they will form the largest military deployment in the region since the gulf war.

But no other allies are likely to join. Washington is in a poor position to rebuild the worldwide coalition that it assembled to fight Iraq in 1991. The U.S. has been politically weakened at the United Nations by its failure to pay its dues, and Russia, France, China and some Arab allies are unlikely to openly support a military attack on Iraq.

Nonetheless, the momentum propelling the U.S. toward bombing Iraq appears inexorable.

Iraq continues to defy the U.N. inspectors who are charged with identifying and helping to eliminate Baghdad’s ability to build nuclear, biological and chemical weapons. A senior U.N. official, Richard Spertzel, said Friday that there was “tantalizing information” that Iraq is operating a secret biological weapons plant despite U.N. inspections and in defiance of an international ban.

Inspection team chief Richard Butler told the Security Council on Friday that Iraq was continuing to mislead the inspectors.

Diplomacy, jawboning and continuing economic sanctions have not moved Saddam.

President Clinton warned Wednesday that diplomacy might be approaching a dead end. “Something is going to have to give here,” he said. Administration officials strongly suggested that after going an extra mile down this diplomatic route in the coming week, military action might lie at the end of the road.